One of Jesus’ most chilling warnings to his disciples is about being treated as “false prophets.” That is, as people who ended up supporting injustice in order to enjoy “the good life.” In fact, he told his followers if they followed him they would be mis-treated.
Why was he able to make this assertion with such confidence? Because his followers had decided to follow the “Son of Man” rather than the powers which ruled their world. For this reason their very presence was threatening to people whose power depended on maintaining injustice. And so, Jesus told his disciples they would have enemies, and people would curse them, and they would be physically struck and have their cloaks seized from them. Just like the prophets of old. Just like Jesus. The goal of his disciples, in our master’s mind, was to display his character as they suffered.
This is a profound call, Jesus’ character is a radical departure from the assumptions of power we find in this world. As Jesus informed his listeners about the types of struggles they would encounter in the future, he also commanded them to not seek retribution for themselves. When someone hated them, they would love. When someone cursed them, they would bless, they were going to pray for those who spoke ill of them, and turn their cheek when the other was struck. In all things, Jesus told his disciples, they were to obey “the golden rule.” However they wished to be treated by others, that was the way they were going to treat people.
This is where revolutionaries cry, “Foul!” To a revolutionary, the golden rule is an act of surrender to injustice. It tells those who are oppressed to take whatever is handed to them without protest or action. The revolutionaries of Jesus’ day wanted their share of retribution, they wanted to collect the debt they felt both the Romans and their clients owed them. Jesus was not one of them. He hadn’t come to over-turn one human form of power and replace it with another form of human power. It wasn’t his mission. Nor, I might add, is it ours.
Jesus’ desire for his followers was for them to take his example and live lives which broke the cycle of violence and human retribution. To do this they would need to embed within themselves the very Kingdom of God. Where the world offered them two paths to go down, Jesus’ disciples would take a third. One which led into the middle of the conflict without joining it.
We have to ask, however, “How would this have any positive impact on the world?” Jesus answered this question himself. He taught his disciples’ their response to mistreatment was how they’d be distinguished from “sinners.” This is why our Lord taught his disciples repaying good only to those who do good to them wasn’t anywhere near good enough.
Jesus’ point is well taken. Anyone can lend money out when they expect to get a “return on their investment.” All but the worst sociopaths see the logic in repaying someone who does something good for you. It is, all things considered, a simple thing to love those who show love to us. As Jesus says, “Even sinners do that.”
That reminder, “even sinners do that,” is a classic warning against becoming the very thing we hate. It is, in fact, an indictment on the revolutionary impulses of his day. Even today, Jesus wants more for his disciples than to just be “better versions” of the “powers that be” in this world. He wants his followers to shine the light of his Kingdom and the good news of his Gospel.
When Jesus’ disciples learn to step off the path of the endless cycle of conflict they force people to see us as something distinct in this world. A people who care about injustice, and yet in their caring fully trust the Lord of Heaven and Earth to move and make things right. These are the people who will be rewarded in the Kingdom. Because in putting their trust in God, they display powerful faith.
See, in the end, faith is what distinguishes those who pursue the Kingdom from “sinners.” We develop, though the Holy Spirit, a deep desire to see everyone blessed, and no one destroyed. We take on the character of our Heavenly Father who showers blessings upon both the good and the wicked 1. We develop the Lord’s mercy ourselves. We put the working out of justice and judgement into the hands of God – and through our mercy we call people to repentance, forgiveness, and eternal life. Revolutionaries, after all, might gain enough power to put their mark on the world for a time. But it is those who are prophetically merciful who will inherit the Kingdom of God.
In the end we, as Jesus’ people, must commit ourselves to re-learning this lesson Jesus teaches us. How we treat our friends says nothing significant about the deepest recesses of our hearts. It is how we treat our enemies, especially in times of great stress and crisis, which shows the world whether or not our hearts are aligned with the one we call, “Lord.” To revolutionaries, Jesus’ character may seem like we’re “aiding and abetting” the enemy, enabling injustice and tyranny. The reality is something quite different. Showing mercy to our enemies displays the power and character of our Lord Jesus Christ, and challenges the legitimacy of worldly power itself.
Are we willing to embrace this type of radical faith?
- The same sun shines on both, after all. ↩